Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Since The Wonder-Worker contains a novel-within-the-novel, it is almost necessarily reflexive; that is, it is as much about the writing of fiction as it is about a psychotic young man. In fact, it is also about how insanity is related to writing, for it is by writing that the narrator can impose order on his past experiences, that he can cope with the dehumanized treatment he receives, and that he can escape from the world. “These lines speed by,” he says, as if his writing were an involuntary reaction: “I write and I scratch. I can hardly tell one spasm from another.” As he writes, he escapes the institutional world, but his aim also involves escaping from time, with its emphasis on consequences, on what happens next. His obsession is “motionless” and “knows nothing of time.” When time is arrested and everything is fused (fusion is his goal, as well as Timothy’s) in a single prism, that prism will ironically also serve as a “prison,” since the end of motion means death or catatonia.

The narrator’s original intent to create a fictional world stems from his psychological “delusions of grandeur,” for the first chapter sounds like a parody of the Gospels. Timothy’s “annunciation” begins the novel, and his “advent” is “accompanied by omens.” Other parallels involve the lowly place of his “miraculous” birth, Gerhard/Joseph’s fear that he is not the real father, and Gerhard’s belief in the “uncanny powers” Timothy has in “concealing and in revealing himself.” If Timothy is a parodic Christ figure, then the narrator is a god who creates him and who, at one point, decides to torment Timothy, whose name “signified ‘fearing or honouring God.’” Accordingly, the narrator asserts that Timothy and the other characters need him, but obviously the creator/narrator also needs his characters, for he enters Timothy’s life and brings Timothy to him in Switzerland. There the two “wonder-workers” appear to be fused, for while the narrator attributes to Timothy “wonder-working” powers of transmutation, the narrator is also a “wonder-worker,” for he has created Timothy. Ironically, however, the “gospel” may be lines and scrawls, Timothy’s story may be an illusion, and the narrator’s own life may be delusion or even illusion itself. Ultimately, the real “wonder-worker” is Jacobson, who has himself suggested the difficulty of depicting “reality” and distinguishing it from illusion.